The public is an attentive people whose conscious deliberation makes up a democratic community, nation or the state. Deliberation is not only an informal conversation about anything; it is a remedy of apathy, isolation and alienation of people. It even overcomes the “group think” mentality, a psychological attitude within a group of people in which the desire for consensus and conformity results in an unreasonable decision outcome. Nepal has faced this problem time and again thus feeding the source of political instability. In many cases, the effect of deliberation or agreements among party leaders habitually remained non-binding.
It is the impact of its political culture of patrimonialism where Nepalis are made an object of the recipient of certain welfare benefits from their leaders, not equal participants in the deliberation. The public is constituted and animated by the force of public opinion, deliberation and democratic will formation. The public has a shared response to issues and events based on experience and reflection and, therefore, differ from the crowd which largely operates in a linear fashion. The latter is unthinking mass only engaged in a non-debatable course of action while the former is well-informed and debating about various choices of policies and the competing conceptions of good life.
The revival of the lost art of shastratha (critical discourse) on the relevance of knowledge for public policy, contemplation of life’s maturity and change, among the scholars, leaders, policy elites and the general public is vital to bridge yawning gaps in knowledge among them, between knowledge and wisdom and between cognitive domain and its practical use for the transformation of life choices. It is necessary to indigenise universal knowledge to fit the local condition of Nepal and cater to the public-spirited interest, attitude and belief of the multitudes of people in constitution, institutions and practices of governance.
Reasoned deliberation, beyond the narrow confines of ritual seminars, workshops and party conventions where consent is fabricated by invited elites, can help the Nepali public to illuminate self, learn from each other’s knowledge and experience and utilise their best virtues they are known for cultural richness and national freedom. Equal opportunity for public deliberation in various layers of rule can spawn a virtuous cycle in Nepali society.
Nepali political parties have, however, conflicting orientations to the constitution and corresponding socialisation and articulation which does not create coherence in worldview and conduct. As a result, each political party seeks to play with the holes of the constitution where legal experts, mostly away from truth, interpret it with conflicting legal sophistry, not in the spirit of universal reason, constitutionalism, justice and public morality. Public deliberation poses a radical challenge to conventional party politics of top-down in modern times and allows Nepalis considerable choice either in candidate selections for election by their top leaders who do lesser amounts of consultation with local party committees or voters and open scope for more deliberation on aptness of policy issues.
They settle disputes through bargaining, power sharing and power equations, not the fair and just adjudication of conflicting interests within and across the political spectrum. This has generated trust deficits, factionalism, split and indictment of each other’s conduct thus breeding public cynicism about national politics and stoking grassroots social movements of various sorts against their unrealised rights. The electoral campaign demonstrates the inflated image of one's own candidates and demonisation of the opponents, not opening opportunities for the people to deliberate on policy alternatives that a robust democracy requires for its vitality and resilience. As most of national policy flows from international institutions, many leaders even do not know the policy substances and deliberate less in the parliament and public sphere.
Deliberation is essential to retain ownership in policy initiatives and create an informed society to keep pace with the spirit of knowledge revolution. The deadlock between the federal government and Kathmandu municipality is an example of communication barriers. In a fierce competition for public attention, many Nepali leaders’ have generated the bubble of lies, vilification, biases, prejudices and exaggerated sense of greatness of self. Nepalis cannot become effective citizens if they lack useful and truthful information to deliberate on critical issues, remove the vices of society spreading like infectious disease and make choices about what is best for them and the world beyond borders.
Obviously, the groupthink tendency in the mainstream Nepali political parties has made them to ignore the critical and creative perspective emerging from smaller parties, grassroots civic initiatives and individuals thus falling into unsound decisions. Deliberative public has a purposive role about making vital choices through mutual perspective taking about public issues of combining rights with duties. Many community associations, citizens groups, cooperatives, clubs, federations of irrigation, community forestry, cultural associations, etc. provide people an opportunity to get their voice heard in the deliberation, learn skills for leadership, form collective attitude and engage in civic activities. Inclusive and deliberative mode of cooperation can postpone apathy and economise differences.
They also learn about common citizenship values, accommodate differences and transcend either personal selfishness or group-based identity politics fostered by Nepali intellectuals, leaders and constitution thus draining the vigour of national identity. The public is a sacred symbol without any reference point. The Nepali constitution, therefore, considers people as sovereign, not only voters, consumers, workers or clients subject to outside decision making in the realm of sectoral action, not public action. Sovereign means self-determining in feeling, thinking, deliberation and action in matters of driving politics, legislative process and public policy matters with an orientation to general public good.
The public is, therefore, frequently used by Nepali leaders, civil society, the media and government to legitimise their action. They do so in the name of defending public and national interest and assuming accountable public action. Autonomy of media, public sphere, intellectual debates and public intuitions of enlightenment can contribute to continuous rationalisation society, polity and the state. Public education, health and corporations have, however, become a subject of excessive partisan allocation. On the contrary, private education and health are the priority of the elites of society. As a result, educating leaders and people about civic virtues has occupied serious public deliberation.
During agitation and elections, Nepali leaders lure to evoke the boldest aspirations of the masses by their flashy, high rhetoric, organisation and media control or financial incentives who otherwise are lulled into silence. Responsible public, however, cannot be instrumentalised that way because it thinks before acting and assesses the costs and consequences of its action. Responsible public is the bedrock of democracy and catalyst of social change in a rational direction by abolishing preconceived notions, prejudices and unscientific faiths. Deliberative public is, therefore, important for honing the civic competence of Nepalis.
It has a great potential to transform passive private persons into active and attentive public citizens and conscious public able to guide decision makers and establish the sanctity of human life beyond pre-existing boundaries. At a crisis time all Nepalis need economic security, self-respect and self-actualization as a precondition for their deliberative politics. Consumer politics is governed by economic interest like the business while politics of labour is driven by class interest and the dignity of labour. The growth of clientalism in Nepal marks the slow development of a responsible public capable of transcending undemocratic bargaining of special interest groups and political leaders who only weaken public sphere thus giving continuity to informal society, economy and politics, not rule of law and the impartial performance of governance.
The reason is the tendency of political parties to absorb the energy of all sectors of society and the state and undermine their autonomy in collective action across classes, gender, regions and parties. The failing of the deliberative public is the reason for the growing gap between public officials and the public. The former considers itself as giver and the public as receiver, not the sovereign people. The revival of deliberative public which used to be its source of socialisation and solidarity in the classical days of its history can make a healthy life of democracy. It seeks explanation of every course of action and reminds the leaders of their accountability to their shared commitment to public good.
Informed public opinion and deliberation in an autonomous public sphere generated by right to information and freedom of speech, press and organisation enshrined in the constitution can transform political domination of people into equality and rule of law if channels of communication act beyond soundbites. The soudbites only punishes the voice of public reason, generates emotional rage and partisan acrimony common in political talk-shows. It belittles the web of ties, a web that unites people and leaders in a national political community called the Nepali state. Safeguarding the freedom and fairness of Nepali media is, therefore, indispensable to gain access to free flow of information as a common good. Rights to information and education are linked to the health and richness of its democracy.
Culture of silence
Uneducated people tolerate authoritarianism and retain a culture of silence. It bears no stake in the survival of Nepali democracy. Its political history suggests that people celebrated all types of regimes and leaders impenitently ignored what they have done to Nepali state and people while repeating the decadal cycle of political change. They, therefore, need to be educated about the fundamental principles of justice, rule of law, constitutionalism, rights and responsibilities and civic virtues to prevent the deterioration of the constitution, public institutions and morality. They also need to know what unites Nepalis, inquire about what holds them in common and what they owe to each other as members of the national state. This can enthuse in them a shared sense of burden and responsibilities to common good.
Public deliberation in social media has offered the poor, migrant workers, Dalits, indigenous people, minorities and less advantageous parts of society to exercise their liberty. Nepal has expanded the scope of liberty through social inclusion, social security and booms in associational life. To sum up, the redistribution of wealth and fillip to social media have elaborated the scope of deliberation beyond hierarchy, patriarchy and mainstream leader-oriented politics that sowed the seeds of authoritarianism. Only public deliberation about the state of the nation can stir a ripple of hope and spur the drive toward democratisation of Nepali public life.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)